Island Adaptation

Island Adaptation

Been to Hawaii?

Those crystal clear waters, soft white sands, adult-sized Trump supporters with leis around their necks. All in all, totally hashtag blessed. 

Well, except for the fact that it’s pretty much fucked, unless we can get our mitigation shit together . . .

Policy response to climate change is categorised into two main areas, mitigation and adaptation:

  • Mitigation addresses the bedrock causes of climate change by creating global policies to counteract the growing variance and consequently enforcing these policies in order to reduce carbon emissions

  • Adaptation addresses the tangible dangers of climatic changes, by addressing real-time consequences.

Both approaches are paramount in the approach to combatting climate change - mitigation to dramatically decrease emissions over the next two decades, adaptation to deal with the changes already baked into the system.

Adaptation is not a new approach for mankind - humans have been adapting to their environments for centuries. Take for example the irrigation of the Nile in 3100 BC, which enabled the Egyptians to use the Nile's waters for a variety of purposes, giving them greater control over agricultural farming. Or perhaps mankind’s first climatic adaptation, the invention of clothing (and let’s not forget those mightily intuitive animals, hitching a ride on Noah’s cruise liner!)

Climate change increases the chances of existing civilisations in experiencing climatic shifts through varying temperatures and more frequent storms, droughts and floods, for which they have not previously been prepared - this is known as ‘climate variability’.

Presently and in the near future, climate change will result in:

  • increased seasonal and inter-annual variability of the climate

  • more droughts followed by more intense rainfall events

  • sea level rises, resulting in coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion into groundwater tables

  • higher temperatures which increase water vapour in the atmosphere, leading to increased precipitation and further warming.

All of the above will cause more extreme weather events around the world. Additionally, abrupt system changes will result in the loss of biodiversity, especially with regard to coral bleaching leading to tremendous loss of marine species (Tomkins 2005).

Adaptation and Small Island Developing States (SIDS)

There is a consensus agreement from worldwide institutions that low-income or developing countries are more vulnerable to climate variability and future climate change impacts than developed countries (World Bank 2013). 

So while amongst the nations with the lowest carbon footprints, small island developing states (SIDS) such as the Maldives, Fiji, the Seychelles, and the Torres Strait Islands, will face the the most immense and immediate ramifications of climate change.

Additionally, SIDS are also on the precipice of intense economic difficulty, having to bear the majority of the cost of adaptation and damage recovery.

Burton (2009) defined this as the ‘adaptation deficit’ where developing countries are less likely to deal with climate change due to a lack of institutional, financial or technological capacity to adapt effectively.

So, what will happen to SIDS?

  • increased levels of coastal erosion due to rising sea levels with cause a loss of land and property, which will result in forced migration of people away from rising seas

  • rising sea levels will also exacerbate storm surge during tropical cyclones

  • mangrove forests are one of the first lines of defense during storm surge, yet will not be able to relocate quick enough in rising seas and will die off

  • increased sea levels will also inundate freshwater resources close to the coast from which many people rely on as their main source of drinking water. 

Tropical cyclones are perhaps the biggest imminent threat to SIDS, with destructive power set to increase in intensity in the future. 

A tropical cyclone can be defined as ‘a warm-core non-frontal synoptic-scale cyclone, originating over tropical or subtropical waters, with organized deep convection and a closed surface wind circulation about a well-defined center,’ (Committee on Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change Attribution 2016). 

The Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale is the categorization system (1-5) by which we measure overall hazards relating to a tropical cyclone. According to the 2012 report from the United Nations’ ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ (IPCC), tropical cyclones are only expected to intensify in the future, resulting in more cyclones of Category 3 and above. 

For SIDS, adaptation measures must be planned for well in advance, (i.e. now!) to prepare for future hazards. Governments and local communities must immediately work together to prepare for future intensified tropical cyclones. 

Preparations may include large-scale government infrastructure projects as well bottom-up behavioural changes, such as people using less water.

‘The adaptation deficit’ 

Many SIDS depend on tourism to fuel their economies, with millions of people traveling to their white sand beaches every year. Yet with rising sea levels, most of the pristine beaches will simply disappear. 

Like scuba diving over coral reefs? I don’t blame you! Yet unfortunately due to coral bleaching from increasing ocean temperatures, coral reefs will further decline with many corals completely disappearing from the seas. 

Local economic effects will hinder another main economic activity in agriculture. With increased sea levels, prior agricultural fields will suffer salt intrusion in to the water table, making fields useless for planting. 

Storm surge could also inundate agricultural lands leaving behind salt water which renders the fields useless for planting (Tomkins 2005).

Institutional and local change

The IPCC (2001) states with high confidence that climate change will bring many challenges and hazards to SIDS. SIDS cannot take the ‘wait and see’ approach to find out if they long term predictions about climate change will come true or not. 

Persuasive arguments must be presented to SIDS now, in order to provide access to knowledge about the detrimental affects of climate change. 

Residents of SIDS recently responded in a survey that there were mixed messages from the media about the affects of climate change and that climate scientists did a poor job communicating the complex nature of climate change. 

Even though there were limited access to information, most residents felt as if they were vulnerable due to climate change. A lack of urgency was shown by most respondents due to local resiliency giving a false security of safety. 

Institutional change can be one of the most important measures to adapt to climate change. Local legislation and organizations can rapidly move to prioritize appropriate and timely management of climate change impacts (Tomkins 2005).

Several adaptation techniques are now available to small island developing nations to adapt to tropical cyclones now:

  • storm shutters and strengthening roofs will help prevent property damage, as well as providing structures with a negative load path to the ground

  • protecting buildings against wind and wind-borne debris will also help adapt (Leatherman et al. 2007).

  • elevating structures on pilings

  • building dams or dikes to help protect buildings against water damage (Klima et al. 2012).


Tropical cyclone intensity and its associated threats and damages will only increase in the future as greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase and mitigation policies are non-existent. 

Robust adaptation techniques must be put in place now in SIDS to reduce vulnerability and increase their resilience in the face of future climate change. 

Developed countries, which are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, must assure through financial and technology transfers that these developing economies transition to a renewable future, and not follow developed countries trajectory towards an electrical grid primarily powered by fossil fuels. 

Only working together will developed and developing countries be able to avert the worst outcomes of future climate change.


  • Burton, I 2009, ‘Climate change and the adaptation deficit’, in Burton, I (ed.), The Earthscan Reader on Adaptation to Climate Change, Earthscan, London.

  • Committee on Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change Attribution 2016, Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

  • Elsner, JB, Kossin, JP & Jagger, TH 2008, ‘The increasing intensity of the strongest tropical cyclones’, Nature Letters, vol. 455, pp. 1-4.

  • Fankhauser, S & McDermott, TKJ 2014, ‘Understanding the adaptation deficit: Why are poor countries more vulnerable to climate events than rich countries?’, Global Environmental Change, vol. 27, pp. 9-18.

  • Folke, C, Hahn, T, Olsson & Norberg, J 2005, ‘Adaptive Governance of Social-ecological Systems’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 30, pp. 441-73.

  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2012, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, Cambridge University Press, New York.

  • Klima, K, Lin, N, Emmanuel, K, Morgan, MG & Grossman, I 2012, ‘Hurricane modification and adaptation in Miami-Dade County’, Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 46, pp. 636-42.

  • Krishnamurti, TN, Stefanova, L & Misra, V 2013, Tropical Meteorology: An Introduction, Springer, New York.
    Leatherman, SP, Chowdhury, AG & Robertson, CJ 2007, ‘Wall of wind full-scale, destructive testing of coastal houses and hurricane damage mitigation’, Journal of Coastal Research, vol. 23, no. 5, pp. 1211-17.

  • Moore, W, Elliot, W & Lorde, T 2017, ‘Climate change, Atlantic storm activity and the regional socio-economic impacts on the Caribbean’, Environment, Development and Sustainability, vol. 19, pp. 707-26.

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2012, Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, digital image of Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, NOAA, viewed 19 September 2018, <>.

  • Nurse, LA, Sem, G, Hay, JE, Suarez, AG, Wong, PP, Briguglio, L & Ragoonaden, S 2001, ‘Small Island States’, in McCarthy, J, Canziani, OF, Leary, NA, Dokken, DJ & White, KS (eds.), Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,     Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 843-75.

  • The World Factbook Cayman Islands 2017, general facts on Cayman Islands, Central Intelligence Agency, viewed 19 September 2018, <>.

  • Tompkins, EL 2005, ‘Planning for climate change in small islands: Insights from national hurricane preparedness in the Cayman Islands’, Global Environmental Change, vol. 15, pp. 139-149.    

  • Trenberth, KE, Cheng, L, Jacobs, P, Zhang, Y & Fasullo, J 2018, ‘Hurricane Harvey Links to Ocean Heat Content and Climate Change Adaptation’, Earth’s Future, vol. 6, pp. 730-44.

  • World Bank 2013, Turn up the heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience, World Bank, Washington, D.C.

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